Published in 1910, Howards End was E.M. Forster's fourth novel, and served to strengthen his reputation as an esteemed author. The novel addresses some of life's most serious questions, including how people relate to each other and what kinds of values one ought to live by. Lionel Trilling, author of a well-known book about Forster and his life, suggests that Howards End is really a novel about who will inherit England, with the title home acting as a microcosm for the great country of Britain.
The protagonists are the Schlegel sisters, young women of English and German descent who cherish literature, art, and personal relationships, and closely mirrored individuals of the Bloomsbury Group, of which Forster was a part. Like Margaret and Helen Schlegel, Forster strived for the inner life that is so often referred to in the novel. He was faced with the transitioning world that the sisters, especially Helen, struggled against, witnessing the move from the poetic to the practical. In contrast to the Schlegels, the Wilcox family is ever sensible and businesslike. One of these families must prevail, or they must find a way to connect. In his epigraph, Forster dictates the second option. The author understood that the world is strengthened by the presence of different types of people. Without men like the Wilcoxes, nothing would get done, but without women like the Schlegels, the beauty of the inner life would be lost. Forster does not label either as good or bad, but rather works to meaningfully reconcile the two.
Many critics consider Howards End secondary to Forster's 1924 novel, A Passage to India, but Howards End is undoubtedly more optimistic. World War I occurred after Howards End was published, which prevented it from being affected by the great trauma of the war. In Howards End, Forster demonstrates powerful faith in people and in human relations and their ability to prevail despite an actively and drastically changing society. Although optimistic, Forster stops short of claiming interpersonal connections can lead to a perfect life, and critics have debated the ending of the book. The Schlegels take pleasure in their outdated and romantic notions of life, and the Wilcoxes take pride in their common sense and motivation, but the novel ends leaving Mr. Wilcox a broken man, Margaret unable to have children, and the poor and miserable Leonard Bast deceased.
Howards End has been a powerful novel and an important symbol for this era's writing for nearly a century. The story is told with subtlety and caution, but Forster's mission is laid out clearly. The city of London, as Margaret frequently notices, is constantly growing, and people like Mrs. Wilcox are dying while people like Charles Wilcox's children are being born. At the end of the novel, Howards End still stands, connected to the earth, even though its furniture and inhabitants have changed.